Common Forest Trees of Florida – How being a packrat saves time

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Looking at the pamphlet shown here, I can say that I have no idea how and when I got it, who scribbled on the cover, or even why the handy little pocket guide published in 1956 didn’t get buried in one of the numerous boxes of packrat stuff in the garage or attic.

Today, of course, a writer can Google just about anything. If he’s persistent, he can sort through all the hobby sites and find information he can count on. While writing my 2010 novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, I needed a handy reference to Florida’s trees. And there it was: right on my shelf less then six feet from my desk.

Published by the Florida Board of Forestry since 1925, I’m guessing I stole or borrowed or received this pocket guide while I was in the Boy Scouts in North Florida. The guide contrains black and white drawings of leaves, acorns and cones along with a descriptive text for each tree. This makes it easy for a hiker or a Boy Scout in Tate’s Hell Forest, the Apalachicola National Forest, or the swamps and estuaries along the Gulf Coast to identify what he’s looking at.

I grew up around Baldcypress, Chinkapin, Tupelo, Sweetbay Magnolia, Sassafras, Cabbage Palmetto, and Swamp Cottonwood trees. So, one would think I’d be a walking encyclopedia about their common attributes, the quick  kinds of details a writer needs when he writes a sentence such as “David stood beneath the ______ leaves of the ____-foot tall Swamp Popular.” But  no, I’ve been away from Florida too long to remember even the simplest details.

If only I had a photographic memory!

I include a lot of detail in my novels about mountains, trees, lakes and wildlife. That helps anchor the magic and fantasy in the story while making the location settings three dimensional. There’s a risk, though. If you make a mistake, somebody’s going to write you a letter or focus his review on the fact that while the hero of the novel was in a gun battle fighting for his life beneath a Chinkapin Oak, you forgot to mention that the three- to seven-inch leaves are toothed or that the trees are between fifty and eighty feet tall. Nice to have a quick reference book!

When it came down to quick reference materials, I found it much faster to grab this old pamphlet off the shelf than to search online. Sorry, Google, but I rather enjoy being a packrat and every once in a while I can actually justify it.

Malcolm

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9 responses

  1. That old pamphlet is a treasure! I wonder why we find fewer of them these days: lots of folks still don’t use Google, and a guide like that will fit into a pocket or pack and go places that just aren’t in contact with the internet.

  2. Those swamp populars–they’ll stump you ever time! 😎 When we cleaned out Mom and Dad’s house, after Dad’s stroke, we found all kinds of old maps and field books and whatnot. I wish, now, that I had kept some of them, for their old-time illustrations. They were really beautiful.

    Nice post, Malcolm.

  3. I agree completely with your last line! I love just raising my head and finding the book I need on a shelf. And maybe stumbling across another tidbit of information I otherwise wouldn’t have found…